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Dirty Collabs: Alexandra Scranton, Director of Science and Research, WVE
Alexandra Scranton is the Director of Science and Research at Women’s Voices for the Earth, a more than twenty-year-old organization whose mission is to “amplify women’s voices to eliminate toxic chemicals that harm our health and communities.” Scranton, whose role as “science geek on staff” drives research—most of which has never been done before—around toxic chemicals in consumer products that women are disproportionately affected by, or that women disproportionately use: cleaning products, cosmetics and personal care, salon products, intimate care. In addition, Scranton says, they focus much of their work on fragrance, “because it is encountered in all of those categories.” Then, Scranton writes reports on her findings, with a goal to educate individuals and empower them to speak out for change to make everything safe—no matter who is buying them, and no matter where they get them.
We spoke to Scranton about some of her current research, what each of us should know, and how we can all help. She emphasized the power of a single voice and urged against using disinfectants for daily cleaning, among other things. Read on for more.
How do you approach legislative change? Do you write letters? Are you lobbying?
A little bit of all of that. There are certain bills we’ve co-sponsored legislation for on the state level both in New York and California, and we also work on federal legislation, working with Congress on specific bills. We do a lot of encouraging our members and readers to raise their voices on these issues as well. A lot of the way change really happens is when people speak up, so we have always been really interested in giving women both the opportunity and the timing of when to raise their voices on certain issues. To help educate and let them know that their voices are very important even if they are not an expert on the issue.
Do you have a recent example of something that was successfully changed that way?
Sure—one thing that relates to cleaning products that passed in 2017 was the California Cleaning Product RIght to Know Act. This was a bill that for the first time required cleaning companies to disclose the ingredients in their products. Just for products sold in California, but it required an online disclosure and had a national impact in terms of people having access to that information. Lots of people were involved in that bill. We worked in negotiations with the industry for a long time to create a bill we can all agree on, and we had lots and lots of people call in to their legislators. And it did pass. January 2020 was the first time the online disclosure was required.
How would you say Women’s Voices is different from other research groups?
We certainly have a women-centered lens, and there is a lot of lack of attention for women’s health for all sorts of historical reasons, so we try to uplift that and uplift the power of women’s voices as consumers and users of product. Another thing we are really focused on, while we work on toxic chemicals, our work is not just to teach people how to buy their way out of the problem. “Here are the products you can use instead.” It’s really about creating that systemic change so that no matter who you are or where you’re buying your products, no matter what products you’re buying, they’re all going to be safe. So it’s not just about buying more expensive products which may or may not be available to everyone. It’s really about changing the whole system.
Is there something off the top of your head that is #1, we definitely shouldn’t be using anymore?
It’s always so hard because we work on all of these different issues. Most the time we’re working with relative little data of this person using this chemical and it cause this disease. Since a lot of research has yet to be done, it’s really hard to rank what’s most important. I think one of the big issues we’re working on right now is concerns about quaternary ammonium compounds, which are disinfecting chemicals. We call them “quats” for short. Very, very widely used across the country, especially in the last year, disinfectants have skyrocketed due to the pandemic, and there are really all sorts of significant health concerns with these chemicals. They are WAY to potent for the casual daily use they are getting, just using a disinfectant wipe to clean up a spill of milk on the counter. It’s really overkill with these very harsh chemicals. There are safer alternatives that exist that can kill viruses if you need to do that—though there is a lot of evidence on surfaces that you don’t need to do that to keep yourself healthy.
I think I read something about how it’s like “killing a fly with a sledgehammer.”
Exactly. Yep. You can just use a flyswatter. It’s probably more effective and won’t leave a hole in your wall.
What is your background prior to joining Women’s Voices?
Sure, I’ve got a Master’s in Science from the University of Montana in Missoula, where Women’s Voices of the Earth was founded. The organization was founded in 1995, and I joined as a student intern in 1997. Then I was on staff in 2001. Much of my education in toxic chemicals comes from working on the job. Learning this stuff and doing this research that hasn’t been done by anybody else. Years and years of process learning this.
I actually grew up in New York City—very far from Montana. I actually thought I would go to grad school in Montana to do something different. The University happens to have a terrific environmental science program that is very activist and solutions-oriented. I did that thinking I’d be there for two years and then go back to New York. But I was there for another fifteen. [Laughs] I’m in Colorado now.
How did you decide to join an organization like Women’s Voices?
It was really a matter of learning about them through this grad school internship initially. I didn’t think I would work in toxics. I had a social psychology undergrad major, but I thought I would do this for a while and it became really compelling work. It’s been very rewarding to see what change can actually happen. Sometimes it feels like it happens really slowly, but change can happen and it comes from people speaking up about what they want and expect from the products they use everyday.
Anything you’re looking forward to at the moment?
We just released our latest report, which is called “Beyond the Label.” That report is the first we’ve done as a result of that cleaning product right-to-know act. I wrote a report on toxic chemicals in cleaning products back in 2007. And at the time, it was so hard to get any ingredients at all. You could get safety data sheets, which have limited ingredients on them. But we did a report then that raised this issue that we thought cleaning products really need to be worked on, but we didn’t have ingredient data. Fourteen years later and now I have real data to look at, which was very exciting.
So what is in a product? There are certainly chemicals we’ve known to be worried about, like disinfectants, and corrosive oven cleaners, things we’ve known about. But I’ve really tried to look at, “what don’t we know?” There was a lot more disclosure for the first time of ingredients in fragrance. We’ve been working on getting that for many years. It’s usually this highly kept secret. But realistically, it’s really easy to reverse engineer fragrance—any competitor can find out what’s in your fragrance. So it’s not really a trade secret, it’s just being kept from consumers. There are some very questionable chemicals, and choices companies are making, that are not necessary to make. You can have a really nice-smelling fragrance without those things. It might seem like small amounts, but they have can some real effects.
Right, it’s often just listen as “fragrance” on labels.
Yep, and there are so many laws that say companies can do that. It’s this very special treatment fragrance companies have asked for and been getting for years. Once upon a time these kind of fragrance formulas were kept literally under lock and key. But now we’ve got technology. No one’s creating a fragrance based on ingredient lists, they’re taking it apart in a lab and giving very specific details. There is still this kind of illusion of secrecy and careful fragrance formulas that don’t really exist anymore.
How would you recommend people approach fragrance at the moment? Should they avoid it altogether? Are there resources where they can find out more information?
It is really difficult at the moment. I do believe you can make perfectly safe fragrance, but it’s really hard to figure out which ones are which. Certainly if you notice any reactions to fragrance, going fragrance free is a good idea. But people like fragrance—which makes sense. It’s a very natural thing to like. So in that case we often recommend to folks that you choose companies that are actually disclosing their fragrance ingredients, and more and more are doing that. And if a company doesn’t disclose their fragrance ingredients, you should ask them to. We think that kind of sunlight on what ingredients are actually in fragrance is already making a difference in what people are using. People ask us all the time about essential oils. It’s another branch that can be better in some ways, but there is a lot we don’t know about essential oils. Lots of allergies to natural oils. Essential oils are a lot more concentrated that what you’d get from exposure to a flower, say, so there are some questions there too. Nature does tend to do a better job, but nature also creates a lot of poisons. [Laughs]
I think I’ve heard a lot of cats are allergic to essential oils.
Yeah there can be, and I think it’s because of how concentrated that is. There are a lot of issues with pet exposure to chemicals. Quats, for example, in disinfectants, are incredibly dangerous to cats. That’s something people don’t necessarily realize. It can really poison cats in a major way.
How can readers help contribute to your mission? And how should they approach toxic chemicals in their own lives?
The best thing we’ve found to create change is contacting companies. Contacting your legislator is great and comes further down the line, but to get more immediate results, companies that make products do want to hear from their customers, and they take that information very seriously. So letting companies know you’re concerned about potential health impacts. I can’t tell you how many companies have said, ‘no one has ever asked us this before.’ If they know their customers are interested and care, they will make changes to make products that their customers want. That’s the power of the 1-800 number on the box. I don’t think they get a lot of calls, and you know, they get a lot of random prank calls. [Laughs] They know every real call from a person who has something important to say represents thousands of consumers. So a single voice can be really important.
To learn more visit womensvoices.org.